note: entire contents copyright 1999 by John Geoffrion
A Review by John Geoffrion
American Stage Festival's production of John Steinbeck's classic Of Mice And Men, playing through Sunday, April 25 in Nashua, overcomes an unsteady first act and eventually roars triumphantly to life.
I'm going to assume that nearly everyone who reads this review has been introduced to the story at some point in their lives, perhaps in a freshman high school English class as I was, or by seeing one of the three film versions, so I won't ruin it for anyone by giving away the elements of the story over the course of this review, and I wont bore anyone by summarizing the plot points.
Director Craig Foley takes some commendably bold directorial choices, some I agreed with, some I questioned. In several places, Foley seemed to avoid the most obvious choices when it came to characterization and blocking. I can't say that it necessarily changes my mind about the way some parts of the play should have been played, but at least it made me think about it.
Eric Roemele turns in a solid performance as George, but I question his approach. Roemele doesn't seem to fit Steinbeck's conception of the character. From a physical standpoint, I always pictured George as much shorter and more frail. In terms of characterization, Roemele's George is also played a lot more reserved and intelligent than the standard, almost as if he dropped out of law school to be a vagrant farmworker. In my opinion, the key to the relationship between George and Lennie is their dependence on each other. Where the dependence of Lennie on George is obvious (and very well played), I saw no dependence of George on Lennie. George, as played by Roemele, didn't need him. The only reason I could see that he stays with him would be out of guilt or shame, or perhaps duty.
R. C. Jacobs also takes a novel approach with the half-witted Lennie. Where John Malkovich played him as vaguely sinister, and Lon Chaney Dir as somewhat of a caricature, Jacobs puts his own individual stamp on the role. He plays him simply as a severely retarded man with the mind and the needs of a four-year old. He appears to have done his homework, either studying young children and their physicality, spending time with mentally handicapped people, or spending a week with my roommate's brain-damaged dog. Jacobs is a masterful physical actor, and his characterization of Lennie is mostly wonderful, and in some places brilliant. His only drawbacks were that he occasionally lapsed into mugging, and that it was damn hard to understand anything he said because of his gravely and slurred speech. I could only follow him because of my familiarity with the script. In the second act, his enunciation improved and the mugging disappeared, and the result was superb.
The supporting cast is very strong, and serves to further bring to life the Steinbeck's portrait of people trying to salvage their dignity and humanity in the face of poverty and despair. Ed Sorrel is heartbreaking as the one-armed swamper Candy. George Pendleton III is moving as Crooks, the crippled Negro stablehand, frequently standing in the doorway of the bunkhouse, never allowed to enter. Sarah Newhouse as Curley's wife is a tragic study of a woman yearning for acceptance while suffering a lifetime of abuse. Randall Forsythe is a solid and patriarchal Slim, Steve Falcone is a feisty and tough Carlson, and Bob Dolan, as the Boss, turns what is essentially a minor role into a memorable character.
Some moments in the show, in my opinion, were rushed through and not played to their fullest potential. The scene between George, Lennie, and Candy where they realize that their dream of living of the fat of the land is actually within their grasp, doesn't have sufficient emotion. The fight between Curley and Lennie, particularly once Lennie fights back and crushes his hand, isn't the Act One climax that it should be. The argument between George and Curley's wife doesn't reach the level of intensity to warrant Candy, in the next scene, to reassure George that he won't lose his job.
Other moments, however, left quite an impact: Crooks' bitter philosophy "Everyone wants to get to heaven. Nobody ever gets there" and his craving for companionship. The counterpoint between Lennie and Curley's wife as they recount their dreams in the barn, and the subsequent innocent moment that turns tragic in an instant. A silent moment of trust between George and Slim during the manhunt for Lennie.
The most revelatory moment that director Foley creates seemed so obviously natural that I wonder why I hadn't seen it done before. Curley's wife, sneaking through the barn with her suitcase, is sporting a shiner on her face and a bruise on her forearm, which adds an ironic poignancy to her confession to Lennie: "I don't even like Curley."
His boldest move is at the very end of the play, as George holds Carlson's luger to the back of Lennie's head while he describes their now permanently unattainable dream farm. Foley has Lennie turn to see the gun, and a look of uncanny realization crosses his face before he turns back. Does this liberty work? Don't know. But Foley gets points for taking such risks.
I fear that this review will not be posted until after the production has closed, which is a shame. Because if you missed this show, you missed an interesting evening of theatre.